The Patriots are on schedule for a normal work week, and they’ll need every second of preparation time for the San Francisco 49ers.
Nobody is discounting the human element that Bill Belichick’s group has endured with the coronavirus and other tragedies around the team. It’s been a difficult last month or so in New England.
But nobody is going to feel bad for the Patriots, and they’re sitting with a losing record through five games for the first time since 2001, looking up at the Bills and Dolphins in the division.
As they put the off-field distractions behind them, New England has plenty of work to do on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium to improve in all three phases.
Offensively, the Patriots are currently 25th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric with the 27th-ranked passing offense in the league. If the talent doesn’t improve, the execution must.
On the other side of the ball, New England’s defense is rounding into form. They’re up to 14th in DVOA, but Belichick quickly pointed out the four plays of 20-plus yards they surrendered to Denver last week. No big plays is the number one rule defensively for the Patriots.
Shanahan’s offense certainly provides a formidable threat to the “no big plays” mantra, with an excellent scheme that creates big-play chances for a talented group of playmakers.
San Francisco’s defense minus Nick Bosa, Richard Sherman, and Dee Ford isn’t the same unit it was a year ago with injuries derailing its season.
Nobody will feel bad for Robert Saleh’s 49ers defense either, and it’ll go a long way towards rewriting the narratives if the Patriots offense can get back on track this week.
Here’s a game-plan for the Patriots on both sides of the ball in what should be a terrific chess match with two of the top coaching staffs in football going head-to-head:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has spent the last ten seasons implementing Pete Carroll’s Seattle-style scheme with the Seahawks, Jaguars, and now the 49ers.
Saleh’s fronts (4-3 under/over) and coverage system (match cover-3/quarters) is the same foundation as what the Patriots saw in Week 2 in their last-second loss to the Seahawks.
After watching Cam Newton throw for nearly 400 yards against Seattle, it would make sense for Saleh to shy away from his typical usage of zone-match coverages to avoid a similar fate.
Newton and the Patriots are tearing up zone coverage, mainly because offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is good at getting his wide receivers on linebackers and safeties against zone.
But New England’s effectiveness greatly diminishes against man coverage, where their receivers struggle to create consistent separation when the scheme doesn’t heavily aid them.
The 49ers play roughly 25 percent of their defensive snaps in man coverage, with cover-1 as their primary call, so they do play some man. Still, it’s not what they’re built to do defensively.
Even without Bosa and Ford, the strength of the 49ers defense is against the run, where they rank seventh in DVOA and have yet to surrender a rush of over 25 yards this season.
San Francisco’s 4-3 hybrid front gives Saleh two-gappers on the interior with a three-technique penetrator that can blow up pulling guards.
As is the case with any scheme, there are areas where the Pats can successfully attack the 49ers run defense, especially out of their two-back sets with a lead-blocker in the backfield.
Due to the alignment of Saleh’s base 4-3, there are vulnerabilities on the weak side of the formation (opposite the tight end). In the image above, you’ll see that the defense only has three defenders to the left of center. With fullbacks and pullers, the Pats can get good numbers to the weak side.
One of the schemes the Patriots will most likely use is counter lead, where the backside guard pulls to kick-out the edge defender with the fullback leading up to the WILL linebacker.
Here, the Dolphins break off a 21-yard run with counter-lead to the weak side of the formation. The pulling guard and fullback make this an even four-on-four for the offense, opening a decent-sized hole for running back Myles Gaskins to get into the secondary.
New England already features counter-lead, so it’s something they’re familiar with doing.
Another blocking scheme similar to counter-lead is G lead, which let’s the offense run to the strong-side of the formation.
With G lead, the play-side guard pulls to the edge defender rather than the backside guard, which allows it to hit faster and gives interior penetrators less time to disrupt the puller.
Lastly, the Giants also caught the 49ers defense unprepared for zone-read actions with quarterback Daniel Jones taking off for two runs of 19 and 23 yards (side note: please install motion blocks, Patriots).
San Francisco will prepare more for read-option runs with Newton, but it’s worth testing the waters a few times.
The 49ers are a stout run defense with disruptive players at the first and second levels. Still, there are plenty of ways to attack their scheme.
As we mentioned earlier, the 49ers play either cover-three or quarters structures on 60 percent of their passing downs.
However, their zone coverages play out like man coverages against vertical routes, so it’s on McDaniels to find favorable matchups as he did against the Seahawks in Week 2.
COVER-3 MABLE (MATCH)
San Francisco’s primary coverage is cover-three mable, which plays out like a spot-drop zone in certain areas of the field but matches all vertical routes.
In mable, the backside corner is locked into man coverage with the “X” receiver while the middle of the field safety and opposite boundary corner split the rest of the field into thirds.
The Patriots took advantage of Seattle’s mable coverages by stressing middle of the field defenders with vertical routes and deep crossers.
Here, the Patriots attacked mable coverage with Edelman on a deep over route. The onus is on the hook defender to pick up the crosser over the middle of the field, which in this case, is Jamal Adams. Edelman knows Adams is dropping into the crosser window, so he runs his route with more depth to get behind Adams. Remember, the corner at the bottom of the screen is locked into his man coverage assignment, so there’s nobody in the deep third on that side of the field.
The Seahawks and 49ers will also sprinkle in zone-match coverage out of their cover-three shells where the defenders over the slots play vertical routes like its man coverage.
The Pats attack those coverages by using their version of the 989 concept, with three verticals upfield. Edelman is running a middle-read route on the left hash. He’s either going to run a seam pattern or a deep crosser, depending on the coverage. This time, the post-safety rotates away from him to bracket Damiere Byrd at the top of the screen, with Adams tasked with matching Edelman up the seam, and Edelman wins.
Those route combinations worked for New England against Seattle, but they might pick up another play design from the Dolphins’ blowout win over the Niners in Week 5.
Miami stressed the communication in San Francisco’s secondary by forcing the defense to execute an “under” call correctly with a vertical corner route from the number three receiver.
The defender circled above is in conflict. The number two receiver inside is his man if he runs a vertical route or delays his release. But if he runs underneath the defense, then Jimmie Ward has to drop underneath the corner route.
As we roll the play, the Dolphins freeze Ward by having number two disguises his release, and when he goes under the defense, Ward is too late dropping to Gesicki’s route.
Lastly, the Pats could beat quarters and cover-three by clearing out the sideline to attack the flats. On this play, the Patriots ran dig-wheel to carry the deep zones downfield while Rex Burkhead released into the wide-open flat for a third-down conversion.
The Patriots can do all of these things against the 49ers’ cover-three schemes, with vertical routes from slot receivers being the primary way they attack the coverage.
When the 49ers are in a quarters structure, the vertical routes from the slot are still useful.
Here, the Seahawks drop into match quarters, forcing Adams to match Edelman’s vertical route up the seam, and we can see how that went for the Seahawks safety.
With New England’s success against cover-three and quarters, the 49ers could turn to their cover-six zone, which they use on 11 percent of their snaps defensively.
Cover-six is quarter-quarter-half, or cover-four to one side and cover-two to the other side.
The combination coverage gave Newton some trouble against the Raiders and Broncos, so this could be Saleh’s wrinkle to avoid the Seattle-style zones.
Here, the Broncos are in cover-six but flip the coverage to play quarters on the backside. The Patriots expect quarters to the passing strength, and when Newton misses Edelman on the middle-read between the numbers, there’s no check-down to the quarters side (it should be cover-two to that side). Newton was tackled well short of the stinks on his scramble attempt.
McDaniels and quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch will need to prepare Newton better for cover-six.
When the 49ers get into man coverage, look for McDaniels to use motion to hunt for matchups.
Here’s a great example of McDaniels breaking tendencies and using Edelman as a decoy. When Edelman comes in motion, he draws three players in coverage. The defense thinks he’s running either a crosser or corner route, and both safeties look to provide help. He runs a speed out to clear out the middle for Byrd, who is wide open on the skinny post.
McDaniels will also motion James White out of the backfield to get him matched up on linebackers.
If the Patriots offense executes the game plan, there’s no doubt in my mind they can move the ball this week.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan gets plenty of praise around the league, and it’s all warranted, even if he has come up short in the Super Bowl.
Shanahan is a master manipulator of defense. He gets his skill players and run blockers advantageous leverage using motion and intelligent blocking angles.
For the Patriots, Shanahan’s preferred style is a bad matchup, point-blank. The 49ers run most of their offense out of either 21 or 12 personnel with a fullback (Juszczyk) or an extra tight end.
San Francisco runs the football out of 21 or 12 groupings on 88 percent of their plays, and 41 percent of those runs are Shanahan’s outside zone, the basis of his offense.
New England is primarily a nickel or dime defense, playing with five or more defensive backs on every down, and surrenders 5.2 yards per rush on outside zone carries through five games, per PFF.
In other words, the Niners are a big, physical ground and play-action passing attack against a small Patriots defense.
Shanahan then incorporates play-action sequences off outside zone and quick-hitting shotgun passing designed to create YAC chances for Kittle, Samuel, and company.
The Pats must prepare for everything and stop the run with lighter personnel. As we saw last postseason, Shanahan is not afraid to pound the rock if you can’t stop them.
The most dangerous element of Shanahan’s offense is his outside zone and play-action sequencing. The runs and the play-action passes look the same, especially to second-level defenders, which makes it difficult to read run or pass.
If you can limit big plays off play-action, then you’ll force the Niners into a drop-back passing game, putting the game on Jimmy Garoppolo’s shoulders.
In the past, Belichick has set wide edges against outside zone teams using a 6-1 “tilt” front that we saw against the Rams in Super Bowl 53. With four defenders on the weak side of the formation, the Patriots could stop outside zone to either side.
The Patriots might also use five-man fronts based on their current personnel, the Dolphins did that some in Week 5, allowing them to rotate defenders into play-action passing lanes.
Plus, the wide edge-setters force outside zone ball carriers to cut back into New England’s run-stuffing defensive tackles such as Lawrence Guy, and hopefully, Beau Allen.
But it doesn’t end there with the 49ers rushing attack. Next, the Patriots will need to plan for jet motion, which the Niners feature on 14 percent of their running plays.
In some cases, the jet motion is window dressing to distract the defense from the real point of attack. Still, they’ll hand it off enough to their receivers in motion that you have to respect them.
San Francisco wideouts Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are dangerous ball carriers and will break off explosive runs just as easily as the backs.
#Patriots film: absolutely terrific play by Gilmore to tackle John Brown on the end around. Pats defense let's the DBs handle all sweeps and end arounds. Gilmore is in man coverage on Brown here, so that's his responsibility. Speed and open-field tackling at its best. pic.twitter.com/MYyirYFM2f
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 23, 2019
The Patriots primarily task their cornerbacks to run across the formation in man coverage with the jet motion. But they’ll also use designs to pass off the motion.
Either strategy can work if everyone is alert to the motion, so communication, as it always is, will be paramount this week.
New England will catch a slight break with lead-back Raheem Mostert on injured reserve, and the 49ers offensive line isn’t as dominant as last year.
Shanahan essentially has two versions of his passing game: play-action, which they use 28 percent of the time, and a classic west-coast shotgun passing game.
Garoppolo wants to use his quick release to throw in-breaking routes to give Kittle, and his receivers catch and run opportunities, and they’re darn good ball carriers.
THE FLORES BLUEPRINT
Former Pats defensive play-caller Brian Flores gave Belichick a blueprint on how to shut down Jimmy G, which starts with a heavy emphasis on taking away the middle of the field.
New England’s game plan will likely focus on taking away slants, crossers, and other in-breaking routes by playing cover-three buzz, cover-one robber, or possibly some quarters structures.
The Dolphins did an excellent job of forcing Garoppolo to beat them outside the numbers by rotating their safeties into his sweet spots.
On early-downs, the Dolphins primarily used a cover-three buzz scheme to cut off deep over routes (crossers) with a safety rotating into the passing window.
Another coverage option for the Patriots that will pair well with their run defense against outside zone is quarters or cover-four.
This season, Garoppolo is averaging 4.1 yards per attempt with an EPA success rate of 20 percent against quarters coverage. Not good, and it works perfectly to limit shot plays off play-action.
Here, the Rams run a dagger concept (seam-dig) off play-action. The Patriots have four players over the top, with two over the seam route. Plus, Dont’a Hightower is dropping underneath the dig route from the 6-1 tilt front. Goff tries to work the dig route against quarters, not a bad option, but Hightower nearly picks it off dropping underneath.
The Patriots defense executed similar game-plans in the past, limiting the 2018 Rams and last year’s Titans to subpar performances.
1. Patriots Tight End Stoppers vs. George Kittle: Kittle is a perfect offensive weapon. He’s an elite blocker, excellent route runner, and a terrific ball carrier. We could see some dedicated doubles and brackets on Sunday. You can’t just rely on Kyle Dugger and Joejuan Williams in man coverage. Need a cohesive game plan.
2. Damiere Byrd vs. Jason Verrett: this is a sneaky good matchup. Verrett is having a career renaissance with the 49ers. He was always good, but never healthy. Byrd is open way more often than people realize and is the Pats’ best separator. We’ll have more on Byrd this weekend.
3. Patriots Interior OL vs. Arik Armstead & Javon Kinlaw: two explosive and disruptive interior defenders, Armstead and Kinlaw, are going to fire off the ball to disrupt New England’s pulling guards. Armstead is really solid, but Kinlaw is young and raw. He can be manipulated.
4. Julian Edelman vs. Jimmie Ward: Ward isn’t a traditional slot corner, but in San Fran’s zone coverages, the Patriots will look to isolate Edelman on him as they did with Jamal Adams. If the Niners stick with zone, Edelman could have a big day. Seattle big.
5. Lawrence Guy vs. 49ers Interior OL: the Patriots need their interior run defenders to make plays this week. The 49ers will try to turn the corner on outside zone runs, and the Pats will try to funnel them back inside where Guy and others need to be waiting.